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December 1, 2011

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'Tis the season to savor chestnuts

CHESTNUTS - rich, sweet, starchy and flavorful - are popular in winter, especially in China where it is considered an essential part of cold weather dietary therapy. And restaurants are rolling out their chestnut dishes.

The air is filled with the nutty aroma of chestnuts roasted in woks of hot sand and charcoal and vendors everywhere sell bags of hot chestnuts. Long queues form to buy the traditional snack known as tangchao lizi (sweet fried chestnut), or chestnuts stir-fried with sugar.

In traditional Chinese medicine, chestnuts are said to have a yang or warm-energy nature and are used to "warm" the system.

"Chestnut is best served in cold seasons since it can warm the stomach, nourish the spleen, strengthen blood circulation and dispel internal cold and damp," wrote famous physician and pharmacologist Li Shizhen (1518-93).

"Chestnut, a fruit of the kidneys, helps relieve pain in legs and lower back," wrote Sun Simiao, a famous practitioner in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), known as the "Medicine God."

Sun believed the nutrition theory of "like attracts like" or correspondence, meaning that one should eat foods that look like a particular organ to nourish that organ. Thus, heart is good for the heart, liver for the liver, walnut (with a crinkled shape like a brain) for the brain. This can be extrapolated to various organs and extremities.

Chestnuts, shaped like kidneys (which represent the reproductive system, among other things), are good for the kidneys.

It is said that Sun lived to be 130 years old and claimed his secret of long life was eating five to 10 raw chestnuts every day.

Chestnuts are rich in nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Extract of the large horse chestnut is used to promote vascular health, especially to ease pain in the legs and lower back.

There are hundreds of species and varieties of chestnuts in China, East Asia, North America and Europe. China is one of the world's largest chestnut-producing regions and there are many distinct varieties with flavors drawn from local soil and weather conditions.

Northern chestnuts known as banli (castanea mollisima) are considered top quality because of "nice texture blending floury and glutinous, rich flavor, high sweetness and strong nutty notes," says Li Shiliang, the general manager of Xin Chang Fa Chestnut Co. The firm founded in 1931 is famous for its traditional tangchao lizi snacks.

Chestnuts from eastern and western China known as maoli (castanea seguinii) are small, coarse in texture and moderately sweet. They are hard to peel and are usually cooked with vegetables and meat in winter.

Chestnut recipes

Around China different chestnuts are served in many different ways, notes Du Caiqing, chef de cuisine at Hyatt on the Bund, who is now designing chestnut recipes for the coming winter.

In the north, where local chestnuts are very sweet and fine in texture, they are often made into tangchao lizi, or first ground and then made into sweet chestnut cake and candies.

In the south, the chestnuts are large and meaty, relatively lower in sugar and high in water content. They are typically cooked together with other ingredients.

"Traditionally, chestnut are considered a vegetable with a yang nature, thus we usually pair it with yin (cool energy) food for balance," says Chef Du.

Chestnuts are very useful and versatile in the chef's hands. They can impart a mellow taste and nutty aroma to an entire dish and their natural sweetness works well with sweet Shanghai cuisine, highlighting the sweet flavor. They also absorb flavors of other ingredients, thus creating new flavors, the chef says.

In France, the chestnut cream meringue, known as Mont-Blanc because it's topped with cream, is made from pureed and sweetened chestnuts topped with cream. In the south of France, marron glace, a chestnut candy in sugar syrup, is served on Christmas Day and New Year's Eve. It's known for its delicate sweetness.

The song "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" is a Christmas favorite. Many street vendors sell roast chestnuts and chestnut is also a key ingredient in some turkey stuffings.

In Italy, there's a tradition of soaking chestnuts in red wine, then roasting and serving them on St Simon's Day on November 11.

In Portugal, chestnuts are made into a liqueur with a nutty aroma and creamy chestnut taste.

This week, we find six chestnut dishes to bring sweetness and warmth in cold winter.

Kurigohan (Japanese chestnut rice)

Chestnut steamed with savory rice is a typical home-cooked dish in autumn. It maximizes the chestnut's sweetness.

It's easy to make at home.

Peel the chestnuts, sprinkle them with granulated sugar and then rug the sugar into the chestnut meat.

Place rice, water, mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine condiment) and soybean sauce in a rice cooker. Place sweetened chestnuts on top.

Then wait for the rice to be ready.

The rice is a balance of sweet and salty taste, with a strong nutty flavor and note of vanilla (if a European chestnut is selected).

Where to buy ingredients:

City Super

Tel: 5012-0998

Address: B2, IFC, 8 Century Ave, Pudong New Area

Braised pork with preserved chestnut

This is one of Chef Du's signature dishes at Hyatt on the Bund. A long paper-thin slice of fatty pork is wrapped around chestnuts, dried bamboo shoots and mushrooms braised in the chef's secret sauce.

The pork absorbs the chestnut aroma and nutty flavor and isn't too greasy; the chestnut absorbs some fatty pork aroma and fresh taste from the bamboo shoots.

The dish tastes rich, with layers of flavors, from sweet, a little salty to broth-like.

Where to order:

Xin Da Lu-China Kitchen, Hyatt on the Bund

Tel: 6393-1234

Address: 199 Huangpu Rd

Chestnut cake

The cake topped with thick chestnut whipped cream looks similar to the French classic chestnut dessert Mont Blanc. The silky topping has an intense chestnut aroma and the cake has a rich chestnut flavor with moderate sweetness.

"The pure flavor comes from the large amount of French chestnut puree I used in making the whipped cream. A little sugar is added, not only to highlight the natural sweetness of the chestnut but also to appeal to Asians' palate," says Linda Fu, pastry chef at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai.

Where to order:

Pastry Boutique, Grand Hyatt Shanghai

Tel: 5047-1234 ext 8788

Address: 88 Century Ave, Pudong New Area

Tangchao lizi

One of the most popular street snacks this season is tangchao lizi. It dates back to the Liao Dynasty (916-1125).

Chestnuts are placed in a pan containing coarse sand and syrup. Instead of white sugar syrup, many Shanghainese add sweet osmanthus (sweet olive, tea olive) syrup, adding a flowery note. Vendors coat the chestnuts with oil to make them shine.

This snack is sold by weight, served simply hot in a paper bag. It should be peeled and eaten hot.

There are hundreds of chestnut vendors in Shanghai and their snacks vary depending on variety of chestnut, syrup formula and stir-frying technique.

Where to order:

Xin Chang Fa

Address: 870 Weihai Rd

Haohao Lizi

Address: 185 Ningbo Rd

Chestnut yokan

This popular Japanese desert, chestnut yokan, is a thick jelly made of red bean paste and chopped chestnut. It's especially popular in autumn and winter.

The firm and bouncy jelly and the floury, soft chestnut creates a pleasing textural contrast. Red beans and chestnuts are naturally sweet and added sugar makes it more intense. It's recommended to drink a cup of tea to balance the sweetness and cleanse the palate.

Where to buy:

Fresh Market

Tel: 3217-4838

Address: B1, 1618 Nanjing Rd W.

Le Chataigne

This is a chestnut (le chataigne) veloute with goose liver flakes and beetroot honey syrup. "It's the golden season to serve chestnut," says Rembrandt Van Der Laan, chef de cuisine at Allure Kitchen, Le Royal Meridien Shanghai. "The soup is inspired by my hometown memory. Every year at this time, my family goes to the forest to pick fresh chestnuts and fruit and make them into soup."

When serving, pour the beetroot syrup and goose liver flakes into the chestnut veloute and mix.

There's a strong aroma of chestnut and slight notes of celery and brandy from the veloute.

The taste is rich, with a pleasant sweetness from the chestnut, a buttery flavor from the foie gras and slight sourness balancing the sweetness.

Where to order:

Allure Kitchen, Le Royal Meridien Shanghai

Tel: 3381-9999

Address: 789 Nanjing Rd E.


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